LUHANSK, Ukraine – The microwave was a loaner, left for repairs by a family that fled last year’s shelling and never came back. With a few tweaks and the judicious use of a soup can, it had been weaponized, shooting microwave rays capable of blowing up a boombox.
Or, say, fry two eggs on a plate in a backyard experiment. That was what Kreosan, the do-it-yourself science duo with a cult following on YouTube, planned to do one chilly morning this spring. When the time came to flip the switch to power up the magnetron, Pavel Pavlov, 21, urged a reporter to step back.
"Whatever this does to the eggs, it can do to your eyes," he said and turned the dial of the disemboweled microwave to the max.
Pavlov and his partner, Alexander Kryukov, 32, are natives of Luhansk, a sprawling, industrial city of Soviet-era apartment blocks and coal-heated cottages that was seized by separatists and shelled last summer in the war between the Ukrainian army and the rebel Luhansk People’s Republic. Then came months of blackout and economic blockade and now a bleak future as a pariah state, cut off from Ukraine but not a part of Russia.
The situation was bad enough that last July, when Kryukov and Pavlov published the first video of the magnetron experiment, which went on to rack up 2.5 million views online, the audience’s initial reaction was to treat it as proof of life.
"The guys from the YouTube channel Kreosan are still alive!" read the announcement on the Russian-language science website d3.ru.
As Luhansk’s prospects looked ever bleaker, Pavlov and Kryukov emerged as quirky but candid guides to an unfamiliar war zone, an Internet voice for locals who drop their Russian g’s in homegrown accents and were stunned by the sudden outbreak of violence in their sleepy, rust-belt backwater.
Millions in Ukraine and Russia clicked to watch the two men film a grab-bag of homemade science experiments, wartime life hacks and answer other burning questions: Have pensions been paid yet? How can you charge your telephone from ordinary railroad tracks? And what happens when a lightning bolt hits a television set?
The conflict has cost Kryukov and Pavlov dearly: Their friends have fled, and they have had to scrounge for cash and search for medicine for ailing relatives. Their video archives from the last year are filled with the buzzing of fighter jets and the glow of house fires from nighttime shelling.
But their Internet profile has soared, allowing them to quit their traditional jobs as an appliance repairman and utilities worker. They have since been invited to Internet expos in both Kiev and Moscow, destinations the eccentric pair reach almost exclusively by hitchhiking through a still-smoldering war zone.
For Kryukov, inspiration came last summer during the blackout, when the magnetron video gained 1 million views in a single day. "I realized that it was time to cut back on TV repair and spend more time on YouTube," he said in an interview in his childhood bedroom at his grandmother’s house.
Pavlov cut in – it was 900,000 views, and at first they thought there must be some mistake.
After all, this is low-tech country science. Their digital camera is equipped with homemade Styrofoam air bags. Instead of a selfie stick, they use a tree branch. Many of the experiments are held in Kryukov’s grandmother’s backyard. During one experiment, their only audience was a deaf man in an adjacent lot who stopped planting potatoes to peer over the fence. His wife shooed him inside.
An evening interview at Kryukov’s grandmother’s house had to be discreet. "Quiet," Pavlov said, welcoming his guest. "Sasha’s got a mean grandmother."
The two men, graduates of technical schools in Luhansk, plot their next moves in Kryukov’s bedroom, a shrine to his hobby of electromagnetic experimentation, where a matchbox chest of drawers holds transistors and other bits.
"I just want to keep doing our experiments," Pavlov said in an interview there. "Before, they were dreams. Now, if we get going, they will become plans."
Like all good buddy shows, there is a shtick: The video editing is choppy, Kryukov dresses in button-down shirts with loud patterns, and both exhibit a devil-may-care approach to safety. (In one video wisely not made public, the two inspect an unexploded shell.)
Perhaps most unusual about the pair is that in a war that has deeply divided Ukraine, where no one is indifferent, the two say they are neutral. Rather, the conflict is part of a landscape that emerges in rare moments, like the distant reports of artillery fire at the end of one video.
That neutrality is not a calculated stance to avoid offending viewers. It is one of faith.
"The lord Jesus Christ does not take sides, and we must strive to act in his image," Kryukov said. "We study the Bible, and our members, we call them brothers and sisters, live in Russia and Ukraine. If we picked a side, we would become an enemy to someone. And we don’t want to be enemies with our brothers and sisters."
The two men are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a faith that grew quickly here after the fall of the Soviet Union but that existed in secrecy for years before then. Pavlov’s father, Ivan, converted after a chance encounter at a Luhansk train station in the early 1990s. He was later thrown out of the church but not before his wife and son also converted. Pavlov’s father left home. The family remained Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Off camera and at home, where he lives with his mother, Pavlov professes the more distinctive tenets of his faith, like a prohibition on celebrating birthdays. On camera, he avoids those topics. The two men now spend half their time in a village in Russia, where there is easy access to the Internet, ATMs and electricity but where Jehovah’s Witnesses are considered religious deviants. The group’s official website is banned in Russia and some have been prosecuted as extremists under the same laws used against neo-Nazis.
"People look at us suspiciously" in Russia, Kryukov explained. "There is propaganda on TV that Jehovah’s Witnesses are dangerous."
There were 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Luhansk region before the war, although many have since fled. Militarized Orthodox groups like Cossacks, whose tanks bear a flag with an image of Christ, have attacked or seized churches belonging to Baptists and other religious groups they consider sects, including Jehovah’s Witnesses. Pavlov and Kryukov said that they had not had been targeted for their faith since the start of the war.
The two met after church four years ago, drawn together by Kryukov’s interest in electricity and Pavlov’s interest in bikes. Together, they decided to make an electric bike. Then came exploding pots, quests for ball lightning, Wi-Fi antennas and homemade generators.
"I have a lot of ideas, but I’m not good at acting on them," Kryukov said. "I saw that Sasha is more proactive. He’s passionate. He takes initiative."
For now, the pair have modest goals: to transform their Internet celebrity into a steady income and, perhaps along the way, buy a new digital camera and scrape together enough money for their next experiment.
But there are more ideas for the future. A scientific expedition to Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear meltdown, is one plan. So is a ride in a hot-air balloon, a pipe dream so long as anti-aircraft guns jealously guard the skies of eastern Ukraine.
"We have so many ideas," Pavlov said. "When you lay down to sleep, something interesting pops into your head. The most important thing is not to forget them before morning."